With scary headlines giving us food for thought over red and processed meat, we sift fact from fiction so you can make a more informed choice
Flexitarianism is one of the fastest-growing diets in the UK and veganism is booming, so fewer and fewer of us are choosing to add bacon sarnies and juicy steaks to our mid-week menus. With a raft of contradictory news headlines suggesting bacon is packed with nitrates and burnt steaks contain carcinogenic compounds, it can be hard to know how much is too much when it comes to eating red meat, and how to cook it safely. We get to the meat of the issue, with seven tricks and tips.
1. It’s a myth you need red meat to get iron
While it is thought that haem iron from meat is more easily absorbed and used by the body than the iron in plant foods (non-haem iron) – studies show you can get adequate amounts from other sources such as pulses, nuts, seeds and leafy green vegetables. “In a 2016 study, one of the largest studies of vegetarians and vegans, the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition compared the diets of more than 18,000 meat-eaters, 4,500 fish-eaters, 6,600 vegetarians and 800 vegans,” says Dr Justine Butler from animal welfare charity Viva. “It found vegans had the highest intake of iron, then vegetarians and fish-eaters, with meat-eaters coming last.”
2. It’s high in fat
Red meat tends to be higher in fat than white meat such as chicken, so always trim the fat off or choose leaner cuts. “Large portions of red meat have been associated with increased cancer risk and a higher risk of heart disease and stroke,” says dietitian Sophie Medlin. “Choosing leaner cuts is beneficial – but it can be more expensive. So if you’re having red meat, have a smaller portion with plenty of vegetables, and as it is higher in energy, consider reducing the amount of carbohydrate you have with it.” The good news is that, according to the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, red meat is far lower in fat now than it was 20 years ago. On average fully trimmed raw lean beef contains just 5% fat and fully trimmed raw lean lamb 8% fat. This compares well with a food such as Cheddar cheese, which contains an average of 34% fat.
3. We’re eating less of it
The meat-free movement is no flash in the pan. According to Mintel data, more than a quarter of Brits have reduced or limited their meat consumption in the last six months, with one in seven of us interested in doing so in the future. This is thought to be due to more people embracing a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle for health reasons, and the recent links between processed meat and cancer. “Surveys show that women are eating only two-thirds of the recommended amount,” says dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel (meatandhealth.redmeatinfo.com), a group of healthcare professionals, scientists and researchers providing independent and objective information about red meat. “So, there is room to add in another couple of portions if you enjoy red meat.”
4. We shouldn’t eat it every day
It seems we should all be embracing the idea of a Meat Free Monday − and possibly a Tuesday too. “If you consider the evolution of the human diet, we would only have had red meat very occasionally when a larger animal was killed, and we are still not well adapted to eating it as regularly as some people choose to,” says dietitian Sophie Medlin (sophiedietitian.com), a lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London. “The World Cancer Research Fund recommends we eat no more than 500g (9oz) of red meat per week, and the NHS suggests a slightly lower figure of 70g per day.” Seventy grammes is equivalent to around two thinly cut slices of beef, lamb or pork, where each slice is about the size of half a piece of sliced bread. So when you consider a cooked breakfast (with two sausages and two rashers of bacon) is equivalent to 130g of meat, it shows how sparingly we should be serving them up. The experts agree that it’s best to think of red meat as a treat, like you would a dessert or a glass of wine.
5. Buy premium not processed
The health warnings about red meat tend to focus on mass-produced cured, salted, smoked or fermented meats such as bacon, salami, ham and sausages, so the key message is quality over quantity. Many processed meats have had nitrates and other chemicals added during the production process to prolong shelf life or give the product a better colour. Often the ‘pinker’ a meat looks, the more chemicals it contains. Nitrates and nitrites are best avoided owing to the link between these chemicals and oxidative stress, which means our cells are less able to protect the body from free radicals such as pollution, which contributes to premature ageing. A 2015 World Health Organisation report also suggests eating 50g of processed meats a day can increase the risk of bowel cancer by 18% over a lifetime. Other studies have linked diets high in processed red meat with colon cancer in women – but as yet there is no statistical link between a red-meat free diet and a lower risk of bowel cancer. “There is no evidence that fresh, lean meat causes cancer,” says Dr Ruxton. “And no-one should be made to feel guilty for enjoying red meat or including it in a balanced diet. The problem with modern diets is not lean meat but the host of highly processed foods and drinks that we consume.”
6. It is packed with vitamins
Red meat is one of the richest sources of vitamin B12, an essential nutrient for supporting neurological and cardiovascular health. Red meat also has high levels of other B vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and B6. It is thought that the ‘bioavailability’ of these nutrients in meat makes them easier for our bodies to absorb than from other food sources. “Grass-fed meat in particular also contains high levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA),” says life coach Kat Vitou (katvitou.com). “This is a powerful antioxidant that could prevent plaque in arteries, reduce the risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes and, research suggests, might slow down the growth of cancerous tumours. Grass fed cows contain 500% more CLA than grain-fed meat. Stick to grass-fed livestock and you not only feed yourself well, but ensure that the life of the animal is better.”
7. It will keep you fuller for longer
“Red meat is a really useful source of protein, and sources of protein that are of high nutritional value such as red meat help to keep you fuller as they release their nutrients slowly,” says Medlin. But don’t overdo it. It’s a good idea to occasionally swap-in meaty but meat-free protein boosters such as lentils and kidney beans. “One serving of tofu provides around half the protein you need in one day, for example,” says Dr Butler.
Dr Carrie Ruxton is a dietitian and member of the Meat Advisory Panel. meatandhealth.redmeatinfo.com
Sophie Medlin is a dietitian and lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London. sophiedietitian.com
Kat Vitou is a health and life coach. katvitou.com
Dr Justine Butler is a senior health researcher and writer from animal rights charity Viva. viva.org.uk